Craft Qualitative: My Weekend with Passionate Consumers at the Great Taste of the Midwest Brewing Festival

From the desk of Natanya Rubin

Every year, on the second weekend in August, six thousand beer enthusiasts gather in Madison, WI, to partake in the Great Taste of the Midwest Brewing Festival (fondly referred to as GTMW).  With over 100 breweries represented, and over 600 beers available to taste, GTMW is one of the premier craft brewing festivals in the country, and for the last eight years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend.

What brings me back year after year?  It’s the opportunity to be among others who share my deep passion for this product—both creating and consuming.  Every year, I get a peek at the emerging trends in craft brewing, trends that are often eventually mirrored in the greater marketplace.

What was notable on tap this year?

  • Some things don’t change.  The perennial darlings of the craft beer consumer—rich barrel aged stouts and ales, bold IPAs, and taste-bud challenging sour and wild beers— were all very much in evidence.  A few of my favorites this year included the Barrel Aged Wolpertinger from Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. and New Holland Brewing’s new wild ale, Incorrigible.
  •  Sweet fruit beers are rapidly gaining popularity.  While some, like the Pure Michigan Cherry Lager from Kuhnhenn Brewing, were light and easy-drinking, others, like the Imperial Peaches and Crème from Short’s Brewing, were so decadent and sweet that they immediately had me thinking of an after dinner drink, as a replacement for port or other dessert wines.
  • Ciders are the new belle of the craft brewing ball.   Cider has been a growing trend in craft brewing for a while now.  For example, The Northman, Chicago’s first bar devoted entirely to ciders, with a menu created especially to pair with what’s on tap, will open this fall.  But it was striking to see the explosion of cider options featured at a fest that has traditionally been strongly beer focused.
  • There was also a discernable uptick in spicy beers, utilizing every flavor profile from mild jalapenos to incendiary ghost peppers.

I was happy to spend some time with one of the fest organizers (GTMW is run by the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild), who was conducting in-the-moment qualitative research about the future of the fest.  GTMW’s tremendous success and popularity has naturally led to questions about expansion.  Some of his questions focused on the idea of adding even more breweries to the already massive number represented each year.  Would it make the fest feel too crowded and unmanageable?  Did it feel like they were outgrowing their location?  How could they maintain the intimate vibe that is so important to the organizers and attendees while opening the doors to more participants?

Success is a good problem to have, but I’m glad the organizers are asking questions aimed at preserving what makes GTMW so special, while building for the future.  It makes me confident that I can look forward to many more years of learning, exploring, and of course, tasting!  Cheers!